Discovering Colombia’s Colonial Towns

Eleanor Hughes


Colombia has a bad reputation in the press, but this land of coffee, beaches, rainforest and mountains is worth exploring. It also has some of the most picturesque Spanish colonial towns in South America, all quite unique from each other, with a history of slavery, gold and Spanish conquistadors.

Check-out Colourful Cartagena

On the Caribbean coast, Cartagena’s historic centre is enclosed within a 16th Century, thirteen-kilometre stone wall. Extended in the 18th Century, canons still point seawards. Walk it and enjoy sea breezes in the tropical climate.

Take a guided walk through the old city’s maze of narrow and wide thoroughfares, colonial buildings painted the brightest, richest hues. You’ll learn about this once major port where plundered gold was stored before being shipped to Spain.

Explore Plaza de los Coches, a triangular square and site of long-ago slave markets. Torre del Reloj, the clock gate, is located here. Around the corner is the stone Iglesia de San Pedro Claver and Plaza de San Pedro Claver, the coral pink-bricked square like an outdoor art museum. Metal sculptures portray traditional life in Cartagena.

You’ll find push carts laden with tropical fruit in cobbled squares and model Spanish galleons, brightly-coloured woven bags, espadrilles, jewellery and maracas for sale.

In peaceful Plaza de Bolívar, torture instruments can be seen in Palacio de la Inquisición and Museo del Oro Zenú, a small gold museum, features Colombia’s gold history and displays ancient intricate gold pieces.

All day can be spent discovering vibrant scenes within the walls. Explore outside, if you’ve got the energy in the humidity, with a twenty minute walk to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This fortress offers views of modern Cartagena and has tunnels to explore, more interesting with a guide. 

See Backwater Mompox

Independence from Spain was first declared in Santa Cruz de Mompox, once Colombia’s third largest town and busy port on Rio Magdalena. When, in the early 1900s, the river began to silt up Mompox lost importance. It looks as if little has changed since. Getting to this UNESCO World Heritage site takes most of a day from Cartagena, via road and ferry.

You’ll see more horses/donkeys and carts than cars. Moto-taxis and three-wheeled bikes with trays out front are also common. Wander cracked, concrete roads lined with colonial, whitewashed buildings. Their starkness is broken only by terracotta-coloured roofs, black wrought-iron grilles over windows and jutting window ledges. Glimpse lush green courtyards through doorways.

Plaza de Santa Bárbara, a stark square facing the brown river is home to the simple mustard-coloured, 17th Century Santa Bárbara church. Its fancy Moorish-style octagonal tower looks like it’s been iced. Churches with bell towers dominate nearly every plaza, blindingly white with mustard trim or mustard with white.

The town, well-known for its filigree jewellery, has several workshops to visit. Also popular are late afternoon birdwatching river trips. You may spot heron, hummingbirds, macaw, kingfisher, cuckoo…

Darkness descends around 6p.m. On footpaths, residents relax in rocking chairs under the dim glow of coach lights, the humidity high. Dine at a riverfront restaurant. 

Visit the Highland Town of Guatapé

Guatapé, is situated on the shores of a manmade lake in the Andean countryside at around 1900 metres. Quiet except during public holidays and weekends, several days could be spent here. Fish, canoe, tramp to waterfalls, or take a boat tour to the church cross in the lake marking Viejo Peño, a submerged town, and Pablo Escobar’s bombed lakeside mansion. However, Guatapé’s highlights are easily seen on a day trip from Medellin, two hour’s bus ride away.

Around two miles before reaching Guatapé, the 200metre high monolith, El Peñón de Guatapé stands amongst rolling green hills. Climb 675 steps to the top for views of dark green, tree-covered islets in the twisting, blue lake.

Founded in 1811, Guatapé’s cobbled streets are lined with clashing, brightly-painted buildings with contrasting wooden window grilles. Lower walls are decorated with sculpted painted designs, zocalós, a tradition since the early 1900s. Many depict the premise’s use or farming scenes, flowers, llamas, geometric shapes or fruit. Hanging baskets, three-arm lanterns, and a three-tiered fountain with four campesino figures give parts of town an old European village look. Don’t miss Plazoleta de los Zócalos, an explosion of colour, located at the head of Carrera 28A, the souvenir street.

The white Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen towers above the tree-dotted central plaza where many eateries are located. Seated at outdoor tables, watch Guatapé life go by.

On the Way to Ecuador

Founded in 1535, Popayán is a colonial town in south-western Colombia, known as the White City due to much of the old centre being painted white. Approximately 2 hour’s drive south of Cali, it’s a good stop-off on the way to Ecuador. At an altitude of 1760 metres, it’s cooler than much of Colombia.

Parque Caldas, the central plaza, is a large paved square featuring a park where locals relax. Join them with an arepa from a street stall. Made from corn, they are iconic of Columbia. The plaza is surrounded by two and three-storey buildings built in the late 17th Century, the one-hand Torre del Reloj (clock tower) sits on a corner. Catedral Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, begun in 1819 and completed nearly 100 years later, is situated further along.

The old centre, set out in a grid pattern, doesn’t have a lot of attractions but is interesting to wander. Take a free walking tour, a couple run every day. Visit Puente del Humilladero, a 240m-long, 11-arched brick bridge constructed mid-19th century, and El Morro del Tulcán, the remains of a pre-Hispanic pyramid, offering views over the city. A statue of Spanish conqueror and city founder, Sebastián de Belalcázar astride a horse, is located on the hilltop. There are ten churches, mostly plain, white and with bell towers. The largest, San Francisco Church built in 1775, is worth seeing. Its ossuary was damaged during a 1983 earthquake and revealed six mummified bodies. Two can be viewed.

Sundays are especially quiet with everything closed, at least from the afternoon. Finding somewhere to eat in the evening is difficult. Try Restaurante Italiano.

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